Burma is becoming a “subservient province of Beijing” and risks being lost to its bigger neighbour “for generations to come”, a US congressman has said.
Speaking in fiery tones before the House of Representatives on Tuesday, California representative Dana Rohrabacher warned that the pariah Southeast Asian state was the victim of a “Chinese power grab”.
“China is literally stealing Burma from its own people, and it is accomplishing this monumental crime with the assistance of Burmese government officials whose lust for power is greater than any loyalty to their own national homeland,” he said.
He added that “the patriots and freedom-loving people of Burma will either join against tyranny and foreign domination, or their country will be lost for generations to come.”
Chinese presence is indeed growing in Burma as Beijing looks to tap the country’s vast natural gas reserves, as well as secure an overland pipeline route to Yunnan province for Middle Eastern oil being offloaded in the Bay of Bengal.
Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $US264 million in February this year alone, up 92 percent year on year, according to the Xinhua news agency. Of that, $US215 million was Chinese exports to Burma.
Last month however a leading US senator acknowledged that it was strict Western sanctions promoted by Washington that had pushed Burma closer to China.
The US has long been concerned with growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, a region that US presence in has waned in recent decades as efforts have been concentrated on the Middle East and Latin America. Moreover, the US has vehemently opposed the current military government in Burma, which receives its strongest backing from Beijing.
Washington has however had a shadowy relationship with Burma: in the 1950s, president Eisenhower installed and armed Chinese nationalists in Burma to carry out cross-border operations into Mao-ruled China, despite the protests of the U Nu administration in Burma, its first civilian government after British rule ended.
Several analysts, including the leading Southeast Asia scholar George Kahin, have said that the huge surplus of arms in Burma that resulted from this initiative, coupled with a need to bolster the army in lieu of possible retaliation from China, was a key factor in fomenting military rule in Burma.
But the adamantly nationalist ruling generals in Burma are also known to be concerned about over-dependence on China, and thus China’s leverage in the country. China meanwhile has expressed concern that instability in Burma, particularly along the China-Burma border, could jeopardise business interests there.
“Burma is not completely dependent on China but dependent enough; they’ve lost their economic independence,” said regional expert Bertil Lintner. “They’re in the clutches of China; there’s nothing they can do about them.”
Chinese imports, particularly in textiles and heavy machinery, dominate Burma’s domestic market, but beyond the economic ties there is also a strategic element to the close cooperation between the two countries.
“It’s more than a relationship of convenience – it’s a military relationship,” Lintner said. “There are Burmese officers who have undergone military training in Kunming [in southern China].”